3-4 vs. 4-3: Most successful 2011 base defense

There is no general answer when it comes to the question of 4-3 vs. 3-4 base defense. It’s case-by-case, and neither is going out of style any time soon.

But it’s interesting to see which formation is coming off the better year, and to what a degree. Here’s a statistical look at which base defense fared better in 2011, with plenty of subjective touches to round out the analysis. Let the battle begin!

Rating defenses with as many teams listed above average (or elite) as below average (or terrible) for their 2011 — and only 2011 — performance. The end of the year and postseason were weighted far more heavily than early season. Though this is subjective, it’s a thoroughly researched jumping-off point. Feel free to debate my ratings in comments:

3-4
Elite defenses: Steelers, Texans, Niners, Ravens *  4
Above average defenses: Jets, Dolphins*                 2
Average defenses: Chiefs, Cowboys , Cardinals      3
Subpar defenses: Bills*, Redskins, Chargers            3
Terrible defenses: Packers                                    1

4-3
Elite defenses:  Giants                  1
Above average: Jaguars, Eagles**, Bears, Falcons, Seahawks, Bengals*  6
Average: Browns, Vikings, Broncos                       3
Subpar: Lions, Rams, Raiders, Titans, Patriots* 5
Terrible: Colts, Panthers, Bucs, Saints          4

*Near-hybrid

**(Eagles’ run Wide 9, far from traditional 4-3)

Totals: 19 teams ran 4-3 base, 13 ran 3-4 base.

Elite: 34 Ds up 4-1
Above average: 43 Ds up 6-2
Average: 43 Ds tie 3-3
Subpar: 43s up 5-3 (or really down)
Terrible: 43s up 4-1 (or really down)

Elite receives score boost of 2 times, Above average 1.5. Subpar gets a -1.5x. Terrible a -2.

3-4: 4×2 + 3×1.5 + 2\3×0 + 3x-1.5 + 1x-2 = 6
4-3: 1×2 + 6×1.5 + 3×0 + 5x-1.5 + 4x-2 = -4.5

3-4 wins 6 to -4.5

The 3-4 definitely served as victors over the 4-3 in 2011 when comparing the composite score from across the league. 3-4s dominated the elite category, 4-3s suffered from the terrible category. However, 4-3s got a boost from the above average category, and comprise about as many defenses that would be considered above average.

It’s important to note that the Patriots gave 4-3s a negative when they use a ton of 3-4 and have for most of the past decade, while the Ravens used a ton of 4-3 last year and gave 3-4s a huge positive. If you were to nullify their scores the tally would be 4 to -3.5, and if you were to swap their scores its 2.5 to -1.5. However you argue it — and factor in subpackages and all — the score should actually be a little closer, but we’ll declare 3-4 the victor, though once again you can’t apply this to every team.

Neither formation is going out of style any time soon, and choosing one base D over the other depends on the player personnel, coaches, front office, organizational vision and we can keep going. But it is interesting how, if it wasn’t for the Giants’ incredible turnaround, all four of the elite defenses would’ve been 3-4 base Ds with most of the terrible defenses being 4-3s.

Granted, the Super Bowl featured no traditional base 3-4 defenses, and the Giants ran a 4-3 that featured unproven linebackers. And the Giants only earn an elite ranking because of their final six games and certainly not the first 14 before they got healthy. It’s also important to note that there are more young 4-3 defenses in the above average category — like the Seahawks, Bengals and Jaguars — that figure only to develop and grow stronger in 2011.

‪It’s tough to locate a common thread amongst this, except:‬

Last year the best defenses were mostly 3-4, and the worst were mostly 4-3. But there were more above average 4-3s than above average 3-4s.

….Observing how these defenses lead to being playoff teams, it shows an inconclusive result. The 2011 playoffs featured seven 4-3 base defenses and five 3-4. Four of the past eight Super Bowl champions ran a 4-3, and four ran a 3-4. Though over past eight years you do have more 4-3s in the pool.

It’s tough to discern if the hybrid tendency — that word often used with the Patriots defense but could easily apply to teams like the Ravens (Hey Terrell Suggs, we see your hand on the ground!) — should or will be magnified in defenses across the league. Versatility’s typically considered a great thing in sports, if you have the personnel to pull it off.

—Hey gang, grab a copy of USA Today’s 2012 NFL Preview, on stands now including Barnes and Noble. Analysis from Thomas Emerick, Greg Cosell, David Elfin and others will certainly put some pep in your step. Or grab it here: http://onlinestore.usatoday.com/pro-football-preview-2012-p16389.aspx

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